“I don’t do pyramids. That’s just asking for a disaster. Are you guys together? Friends? Good. Then you’re comfortable with taking your clothes off.”
This is Day 2 of Burning Man. John looks at me and my two new friends. His spunk comes through when communicating with his expressive bushy white eyebrows. His deep level headed practicality comes through from his soothing narrator voice (like Morgan Freeman level) in a way that you just nod “uh huh” and roll with. He looks to be late 60ish and has a “I know who the hell I am, do you?” vibe. I instantly decide that I trust him.
So yeah. Pretty much, we surrender to his direction and just go with the flow
Let’s back track….
Go with the flow is just how it is here. At Burning Man, you rarely walk in with a set plan and follow it straight out from A to B. When there’s desire to explore what lies in-between, you don’t question that impulse.
Go with the flow.
We walked into the tent and noticed the pictures hanging on the walls. They were all portraits of people of different race, age, gender. The majority were all nudes. Provocative. Reflective. Dominant. Neutral. Human. John is in the middle of a shoot with a shirtless large black man who just had water poured all over his face. I hear the words “Golden Shower.”
Go with the flow and explore the unknown.
So we were originally biking out in pursuit to find fries. But we managed to find an edgy photo studio in the middle of the desert instead.
While we were undressing, I listened to my body and set my boundaries at keeping my underwear on. For added measure, I also kept my knee high avocado socks on as well. #expressyourself!
Let’s see…what can I say about this experience aside from being completely spontaneous, exhilarating, playful, innocent, and sensational on all spectrums of what it means to live life and embrace everything in the moment…
“I’m sorry, young man, have you ever masturbated in front of the mirror before? Do you know what the look of ecstasy looks like?”
Oh John’s good.
Humor is a useful tool for a time like this. We start getting more comfortable with ourselves and each other under John’s guidance.
John asks Oren to leave so that its just me and Dana posing together.
While I’m slowly expanding in my mindset of self love, I’m also challenging my understanding of where I am in terms of intimacy with people I form instant connections with. This is all inclusive, binary and nonbinary genders.
Dana and I happened to share this amazing spontaneous night full of adventure just the night before. It was just the kind of sober cathartically charged experiences of exploring a new world together with someone on the same synchronic level of energy and curiosity that gave me instant gratitude and love for my new playa best friend.
SWhile I began to appreciate and exalt in this beautiful moment where I get to share a deeper level of connection, natural and comfortable as is, John takes it up a notch and brings out props to play with.
At one point, my neck is collared and my hands are tied up in chains above my head while Dana caresses my breasts with a leather tassel whip. Well believe it or not, this is a first for me. I go with it knowing that this sort of metaphorical Yoga pose stretch is just representative of lovely growing pains I need to surrender to in order to access something greater within.
I think about the two out of ten principles you sign up for in Burning Man. Radical Inclusion and Radical Self Expression. My layers were removed. I’m reveling in this experience of receiving and being present to the moment, without worrying “is this "appropriate"?” I was in it. I was comfortably living in the moment and it happened to be HOT!
I look up in sweet surrender.
Of course, there was desire. Freedom. Innocence. And John captured that right away within a small fraction of a second.
And then suddenly, he looks at me with this acute focus. His white burrowed eyebrows arch high up and his voice is loud and clear.
“I want YOU, just you.”
I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because he’s old. And not in that “creepy old white guy” sort of way. I picture him at the end of the table cutting turkey for a big family. His humor and his gentle yet bold assertiveness spoke to me. I trusted him and also trusted myself with being myself in front of him.
How amazing it feels to be completely comfortable with showing up. Showing up just as I am.
He took a few shots and among the “oh yes, just like that, beautiful, keep your chin up, perfect” I found myself strangely exposed and yet at One with my body. With a group of people watching the whole process, there were captured moments taken of me where I felt vulnerable, excited, sexy, bold, and intrigued with it all. Removed was embarrassment and shame. I was free from the past narrative of those years when I had a terrible body image and misconception of “beauty.”
In the thick of it, I knew that this is why I’m here. I mean not necessarily for nude-ish photography. But an extension or application of something to pull me out of my body and my mind. In the light and dark of my subconscious, I wanted to explore the realm of radical self expression, self love, vulnerability, awareness, and connection with mind-body-spirit. I wanted to be free and unchained from all of the “should’s” and "shouldn't" dialogue from my past. Ironically, in stark contrast, within reality, John has me chained and tied in handcuffs with my hands above my head in blissful surrender. I’m exposed but not broken.
John shows us the pictures. I noticed my body at first and found it to not to be the main focus. It was within the faces. In Johns photography, he captures humanity. What it means to be raw and completely human and at peace.
This is Day 2 of Burning Man. This is just the beginning. I’m grateful for this experience that catapulted my understanding of self love to make room for more enriching tales to follow...
As we were dressing back up, John pulls me aside. He invites me to visit him back in Santa Clara for more individual photo-shoot sessions. I’m flattered but mostly perplexed. I had to ask, “Why? Why me?” He says something to the extent of “unconventional beauty” and how his mission is to spend the rest of his life capturing what that is for people to witness.
In the next few days to follow, I began to slowly understand what he meant. That look. What it means to be completely seen and vulnerable. To look into someone’s eyes and see them as is. And to share that experience of visible connection. "I see you. You are me. I am you." We are all beautiful. I’ve cried in people’s warm embraces after just a few minutes of meeting them, there was nothing left to hide anymore.
So a week later after Burning Man, I find myself with a strong impulse to drive to Santa Clara and connect with John. He’s a wise character. And I am tenacious and relentlessly curious.
Go with the flow, explore, and find yourself along the way.
He was on board with the Q&A interview. Here is John Brennan, the man who makes people see something in themselves they never saw before. This is the man who Goes with the Flow.
Here is his life story arranged from a lovely conversation as we pick his 5 values up together.
September 15 @ John’s studio in Santa Clara
T: So John Brennan, I guess you would call yourself a photographer yes?
J: Yes and that’s all I would call myself.
T: How long have you been doing this for?
J: Maybe 40, 45 years, somewhere around there. I never kept track.
T: And did you know that this was all you ever wanted to do?
J: No. Up until that point, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’ve gone to college. I’ve stayed in college to try to avoid the Vietnam war, that didn’t work. So I got a Masters degree in business and figured oh another 2 years and it’ll be over. It wasn’t. And I became a pretty well educated, I guess, sergeant in the army. I was a Grunt. Just ground pounders. I got out of service, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to Europe and bummed around for several months until the money I had ran out. I came back to New York where my parents happened to be stationed, got a job because I ran out of money. A year or so later, I got married.
It was an arranged marriage. My mother and my wife’s mother were in two apartments that butted against each other and they would talk out on the backdoors. “Wait until my son gets home, your daughter will love him.” We hated each other when we met. We had nothing in common, and less than a year we got married. And now it seems to be working. 45-47 something years together
T: So you got together the same time that you started to take up photography.
J: Pretty much. I was working a regular job in New York city, suit and tie. And one morning had a catharsis. I was walking across 8th avenue, carrying an umbrella. I just got out of the apartment. And a guy started running at me in front of the crosswalk with his car. You know just bumping up against me. I took around and I wail it on the hood of his car. He didn’t move, I went into work with my bent umbrella.
I went into work. My boss asked if I was okay. I said yeah I was fine.
About a month or so after that I got an assignment and traveled out here, California, in March. My wife had never been in the west coast. We came out here, it was a business trip. And then we got back to New York. And one day I said “do you want to move to California?” And she said “yes.”
The next day, I resigned.
She and I and the cat got in the car and took several months to drive out here. We knew we were going to California but that’s it. And we just drove around across the country. At one point, I saw a thing about tubing up and down the river in Ohio. We were nowhere near Ohio. But said “Jeez that looks like fun.” We drove from Virginia or Maryland to go tubing down a river. It took a day and a half to get to Ohio and took maybe 3 hours to tube down the river. And said “that was worth it, that was worth the side trip”
We got to California. I took a regular job. I didn’t like it. It was business, finance. And then I started out literally selling photographs on the street. You know market art show. It was much different than what I do now. They were cute pictures. They were nice. I was doing that on the weekend.
T: How old were you?
J: I was 30 something.
Again, I came home one day and said “I want to quit my job and be a photographer” Linda was like “okay John, you sell your pictures on the sidewalk and we just bought a house...”
“I promise you I wont lose the house. I’ll do everything to make sure we have a house”
“Okay, do it.”
The next day I resigned again. And decided to teach myself photography as though it was a job. I would go into it at 8 am and teach myself. I decided I would make more money selling photographs of something rather than taking pictures of things I spot on the street.
So I started getting commercial jobs. And I quit selling pictures on the street and started selling pictures of things, like computer boards, or sports equipment to the people who had the companies. And they paid better. Lately what I do more than anything is travel. When I get a chance, I travel as much as I can.
I leave in 3 weeks for Vietnam. I’m going for a month. And I just roam around and take pictures.
Mostly before this, I traveled a lot with my daughter. She’s very much a kindred spirit. She can take care of herself. We watch out for each other. She’s been to India twice on her own. She just turned 40. She and I have traveled a little around Spain, Morocco, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand. We both kinda like it over there.
T: Going back into the general format of this interview…let’s break down those 5 words that have been at the very theme and core of how you’ve lived your life. Or rather how you are living your life right now. I’m getting so much from your life history already, there’s so much coming up for me that I could also share with you if you want. Why don’t you start?
J: Integrity is probably the most important part. You have to be true to your word. You support your friends, right or wrong. You give your word on something and you do it no matter what. That’s just part of it. We’ll go through them one by one, Integrity. Second. Your turn.
T: Nice one. Okay, sure. I’d like to say Explore for you. In terms of exploration, that goes for travel and also your mind.
J: Explore. Obviously, I like to travel. People ask “Why do you like going to Southeast Asia?” Part of it is I love getting out of the plane and swimming through the air because it’s so hot and humid. I revel in that. Part of that also is you explore your own mind when you travel.
Now this is rare what we are doing here. Rare for me. Not for you. I don’t talk. I’m just a very quiet person. I will probably talk more this afternoon with you than if I was traveling with my daughter for the next month traveling. I’m a quiet person.
I probably live way too much in my own mind. I’m not bored in my own mind but I like getting out of it physically. Not out of my mind physically. My body. Out of where I am physically. I think I am very level in my thinking. I don’t think my basic values have changed in my life. I’ve got a set of values probably from my mother and father. And they seem to be enough for me to live and be content and be happy and I think I’m very happy. Also very lucky. And to instill the same thing in my daughters. Given enough time, into my grandchildren.
I’ll explore anything. Almost anything seems like a good idea. “Ooo lets do this. That seems like a good idea!” A couple of years ago, 10 years or so. A guy called me up that I barely knew and said he was going to Nepal and had a deal on some plane tickets. He said, “oh think it over” and I mentioned it to my wife that night. The next day he called me and said “hey these are really good tickets, do you want to go?” I said “can I let you know tomorrow morning?”
I said “Linda, remember last night when I mentioned Nepal?”
She said “Just go. I knew you were going to go yesterday. Just go. Please make out a will and just go”
Yeah it was a great trip. You know it was fun. I got to climb some mountains.
T: Sounds like you are spontaneous and listen to your instinct. You respect those that you love but ultimately listen to your body. Life truly always seems like an adventure! Integrity and explore go hand in hand. Thank you for your story!
J: Okay, third word.
T: Third word for you from what I hear…I’d like to say Family. You intersperse a lot of your family in your stories.
J: Yeah, well probably not as much as most people do though.
T: Haha. By the way, how old are you?
J: I’m 73. My wife goes on road trips with her girlfriend. To some sort of folk telling group in Tennessee. I just said “Have fun. Enjoy yourself!” She and her girlfriend are going somewhere later this month. I’ll be fine.
We are both really independent. We managed to stay married for 40 something years. So that’s something, I guess. Given the odds these days, its something.
And we have things we like to do together, we have things we like to do separately. I don’t comment on what she likes to do separately and she doesn’t comment on what I like to do separately. And that works really well for us.
T: Seems like another one of your values would be Respect. Respecting boundaries.
J: I think there’s a lot of ways to define respect. I respect her. She respects me for what we are rather than some abstract of what “respect” should be. Respect in the abstract is “you must come home at night” “you shouldn’t be taking off half way around the world by yourself to do god knows what to god knows whom” That’s not necessarily our idea of respect. I think our respect for each other is “you will do what you want without harm. I will do what I want without harm to you.”
You know, I will not do anything if I can possibly help it that will harm her. I may not make her life easy. She may not…well she always makes my life easy, I think. But you know, I will never do anything intentionally to hurt her.
I may do things intentionally that I think “that seems like a good idea now.” Which are these are not in the best interests or whatever, but I have a great deal of respect for her. She has probably done in more ways wonderful job of taking care of our children than I have. She has 1 daughter who is married, 3 children. A lawyer, married to a lawyer. And we have another daughter who’s a beatnick, you know loves to travel. Who says “Oh, I’ll go to India. Sounds like a great idea. No pay. No problem. It’s only for 3 months”
T: Ha, Life
J: So another one please!
T: Yes, we talked about this before. And it was Passion! I’d love to hear more about the passion you put into your work and what you do. What do you see in photography and people?
J: Okay, that’s a bit easier for me to answer. I love photographing people and to some extent, on the whole, I love photographing them more than I love people in general. Given the opportunity, I think most people are fairly honest, fairly decent. But I don’t have to know that about them one way or another when I’m photographing them. Most of the people at Burning Man that I photograph or people who come into my studio, I don’t remember their names. But hopefully I saw something about them that I thought, completely right or wrong, its only an opinion, that might help me make a good photograph.
I’m not sure if I’m making a statement with my photographs, I think rather than a statement, I’m showing something. I can’t tell you what they are thinking about. I can’t tell you much about them as people, but what I can do is show you physically that this one little moment in time when they either showed me something or I saw something, they may not even realize they showed it to me. It’s a 400th of a second, that’s all it is. In this whole continuum of their lives and my life, any one of those photographs is roughly a 400th or 200th of a second out of it. I may have made many more photographs of them but anything that’s made through that much work and gone through so much of a crucible to make a photograph and put it on my wall, represents only this infentismable time in their lives.
Hopefully they see something in it that spurs something, makes them happy, makes them think.
I do tell them that quite honestly all I can photograph is the surface. I can’t photograph their thoughts. I can’t photograph their soul. I’m not sure that I have a soul, or they have a soul, or anybody has a soul. I don’t know what a soul is. Many there’s a spark in all of this that you could call a soul. But I don’t think I can photograph it.
I do think I can photograph on a very rare occasion the surface that’s before me and say something about it in the photograph, in the print, that might to some extent might be universal. That the person photographed and the portrait are two entirely different things. The person may not be in reality, in their whole life, they may not be that person portrayed- because they are only portrayed in a brief instant of time, a small portion of a second.
Hopefully, or with any degree of unbridled enthusiasm, I go out and make thousands of photographs every year at Burning Man, in the hopes of making a good year. A good year would be a dozen. A great year would be 2 dozen of photographs that move me. I want to print and show to someone else, and say…
“Look at this. Take a moment, look at their eyes, look at this gesture, look at this touch, look at this expression. This is worth seeing.”
For right or wrong, I went through a lot to do it. Although I never talk about that. You know what you go through to get to that point is nothing compared to being at that point.
There are 5 big baggies in the dark room of film waiting to be processed. So that’s maybe 3000 frames, if 12 or a 24 of those 3000 frames are good, for me, I’m happy.
I’m like salmon. You know how salmon spawn. You have a salmon fighting up upstream going through everything, boulders and being eaten by bears, and they leave a million eggs. And maybe one salmon makes it back to do the whole thing again. Of climbing the rocks. You’re a fish, how do you go up a waterfall? You keep swimming and you get knocked down and maybe you’re 3 inches higher on the top of the waterfall. And on top, there’s a bear, ready to eat you! To scoop you up and that’s your dinner.
And yet the salmon keep doing it.
So I keep doing it too. I’m like a dumb salmon. It’s bred within me. To just keep going uphill.
Watch out for the bears. Watch out for the fisherman. And then when I finally spawn as a salmon, I’m going to die. I become food for the next salmon group.
And that’s what salmon do. They don’t have a choice.
I don’t have much of a choice; I will keep doing this until I can’t do this anymore. Until I physically can’t do this anymore.
T: Live life like a salmon! That sounds like real passion to me. I see it in your work and your relentless push to take people in as they are, to capture a moment worth seeing. Without judgement. I’m happy to hear that this push forward in your passion is what keeps your love for integrity, exploration, family, and respect alive.
How many years have you been going to Burning Man?
J: I’ve gone to Burning Man for 20 years. I never once thought about how many people I’ve photographed. There’s probably 50,000 negatives. Maybe. I don’t know.
The nice thing about only having to make yourself happy or do something for yourself, because I don’t have to count on selling somebody a print, is that I get to do it. That’s the most important part of it. I get to meet these people. I get to photograph them. Sometimes in intimate moments. Sometimes in cathartic moments for them. Sometimes at really low points in their lives.
I’ve had an inordinate amount of people cry. You know just cry.
That’s worth a lot. Because, I think in some way that I was some help to them. Maybe not intentionally but I was of some help to them. I don’t know their back story or very much about them. But they see it and they go “yes, you know. Thank you.”
One couple Sigmund and Carol, they are sailors, both of them are old and pretty weathered. When they first started off as a couple, they’ve sailed around the world for 17 years on a sailboat with their daughter. And I had photographed her 2 years ago. Sigmund said “at first I didn’t like the photograph you did of Carol. It wasn’t her. I didn’t like it. But the more I looked at it the more I understood. Thank you. That’s important to me.”
I only knew a little about Sigmund and Carol. I do know that she a breast cancer survivor because she’s had a double vasectomy and wasn’t afraid of showing it.
“John, this is me.”
And I said “that’s okay. That’s perfectly alright. That is what you are right now. Its not one whit to me whether you get breasts again.”
They are a lovely loving couple not what you call attractive by most standards but a lovely couple. Who are great to talk with. Who will sit out at Burning Man 1 to 2:00 in the morning having drinks and talking. Just because they are fun and interesting and they have opinions. On most things, we semi agree and there are things we don’t agree on, and there are things we agree wholeheartedly. But as Sigmund said, “it took me a year and half to like the photograph you did for her and now I really like it.”
“Okay good, thank you.” That’s all I have to say.. That’s all I have to say just “Thank you” that I did something worthwhile. I’m happy to have done that.
A thank you from these people and some people, both out here and out here, you know if I get a note from them, it means a lot.
T: I’d like to say thank you as well. You captured a moment that I didn’t know that I had. I’d like to call it “Blissful Surrender.”
J: Yeah, well a lot of people don’t.
Maybe I’m an enabler. I never wanted to do anything that is going to offend the person I’m photographing or make them uncomfortable. I will be blunt. I’m very honest with the people I photograph. Lying doesn’t do you any good. So you know, be honest.
T: So is there a common theme to all of your photographs that you like to portray? Is there a mission you have in your head or is it to simply capture humanity?
J: It’s just the passion to do it. The most important part of it is the doing of it. The actual making the photograph. Sometimes you make a photograph and afterwards its just like you have sex. You want to sit back have a drink and have a cigarette. You know, “That was good. That worked.” That’s one way to put it.
T: That’s great! You’ve done it! High five!
J: Yes Yeah, its like “Woah , Yeahh that was great.“ Have a scotch. A cigarette. Let me take a nap.
T: I think that’s just the perfect visual to end it and sum up your life. Haha
So we have integrity, explore, family, respect, and passion. I know there’s more.
J: Hopefully, this is just the first part of my life story. I intend to keep going!
T: Of course!! Same here. Humans evolve. I know I constantly am. Why do you think I have 12 sets of bands, 60 universal values that sum up one phase of my life...
But anyway, it does intrigue and humble me when I find the beautiful simplicity in everything you do is derived from the passion to just do it. The most important part is the doing of it. SO many people get caught up in the logistics but don’t do anything about it.
I’m trying to uncover the experiences people are willing to share with me, of who they are from their story based on the sum of their experiences. Remember that time you hit the car with the umbrella, that was the first sign of your body reacting that you aren’t happy. And you did something about it!
J: Yeah I wasn’t happy
T: And then you quit! And traveled across the country with your wife and cat! I’m very interested to see where the next piece of the journey is for you and your photography.
J: I have no idea, other than a couple of towns I missed in Vietnam, where I am going.
T: Is all your work on your website?
J: I’m 6 countries behind doing another book.
T: Where can people find your work
J: Right there (points at book shelf). I do them give them to friends and family.
We look over John’s photo books. He also gives me his daughter’s photobook from Morocco. We eventually get around to do more photography. It was another humbling experience.
I gift John with Explore.
I leave with a calm understanding and open surrender to what life can bring next.
Thank you John for holding yourself and your profession with the utmost integrity and passion. You’ve been an inspiration!
You can find his website with some of his works here
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